How appropriate that the cat would die on New Year’s Day after a year like we had, disabusing me of the notion that the flip of a calendar page would somehow wipe clean the disaster of 2020.
Jasper did himself and us the great favor of dying with relative ease and seeming peace at the end of a good long life, on his own terms, literally in his sleep, three days shy of a scheduled home euthanasia. He gave us notice, having gotten very sick a few weeks previous, so that we had time to realize where we are going — a true gift after the shock of other sudden losses I’ve experienced. He waited just until I got back from a short trip, providing me the chance for a farewell pet of his soft head and whispered love into his still-attentive ear. The ground was, incredibly, still soft enough to dig a small grave despite recent freezes, and the weather held out just long enough for us to bury him in the sunshine before sleet started. All in all, it was the best death I could have hoped for. And it still really sucked.
Fourteen years ago, I stopped into an animal shelter looking for a cat I’d seen on their website who had already been adopted. Not one to ever leave such a facility empty handed, I looked around and met a pretty blue tabby. I didn’t know it at the time, but the visiting room in which I decided to bring the sweet boy home was one where I’d later spend hours and years working as a volunteer. Jasper, the cat with white eyeliner, a brick house red nose, and sage green eyes, fit in well with our other two cats, and was our first new addition to the house my husband and I had bought just a few months before. Later that year, we’d also get our first dog, the beginning of a pattern of animal acquisition that has made our home life pretty zoo-like overall, topping out at two dogs and five cats.
Jasper ferociously hunted mice and squirrels that were foolish enough to squeeze into cracks in that house. Many a night in his youth, he slipped out the front door and had me hunting instead, flashlight in hand, stalking the neighbors’ backyards and garages, bringing him home covered in cobwebs and mud. He played and snuggled and purred and made messes, like any good cat. He even gave hugs, wrapping his furry arms around our necks. Jasper had one serious illness early on, which required multiple trips to the vet and a long course of medicine. That experience made him so averse to the doctor’s office (read: rage-filled clawing violence) that further visits required both sedation and handling with elbow-length leather hawk gloves. It all reminded me of a piece by Christopher Walken about his own feline: “Cats are fearless. They are fierce and nice — a wonderful combination of qualities.” At some point, Jasper simply became our one cat who just didn’t have annual check-ups or vaccines.
So, I rued the day he got seriously ill again. I had no plan for when the time came because it was inconceivable that there would be a way to manage his final moments without misery for all. Almost miraculously, he was utterly fit until a few weeks ago. We noticed our old soldier had started to thin and spend even more time alone, but chocked it up to simple aging. Then he started vomiting, stopped eating, and spent five days on the bath mat in the bathroom. That’s when I called the vet and explained how I couldn’t bear to bring him in, but didn’t know what to do. Knowing us for more than 20 years and Jasper’s particular history, she didn’t argue for a second, but gave me the contact info for the home euthanasia angel.
The last couple of weeks were hard, but not horrible. Jasper clearly had a kidney problem, and many rolls of paper towels were utilized for clean up. Some days he was ravenous; others, he turned his nose up at every offering. We didn’t know where he went a lot of the time, and he stopped showing up for snacks at the end of the night, a routine I named “roll call,” so that I can count everyone. I accepted that this was where we were heading. Unlike so many losses, I didn’t feel robbed by an end that seemed woefully premature. I thought I was OK with it.
Jasper tucked his big front paws under his chin on a soft fleece on the couch where his dad had placed him, and he really never woke up again. On New Year’s Eve, we watched the steady rise and fall of his rib cage, watched how it slowed and slowed some more over the hours while sadly drinking prosecco and attempting to distract ourselves with TV. I thought he’d be gone by morning, but he still had the subtlest stirring in his chest for a couple more hours, and then, while we weren’t watching, he slipped away.
Walken’s cat also departed naturally, on his own terms: “My wife and I kept him company as we watched TV, then we left him there and went to bed. The next morning, he was dead; as if he’d said, ‘That was good. I was brave. Time to go….See you again???’’’
Jasper was brave, and protected us from so much. I am abundantly grateful for our sweet blue tabby’s utterly graceful end. Yet, I am foolishly surprised that even being prepared and witnessing the best possible version of a hard moment doesn’t mean it isn’t terrifically painful anyway. You don’t live with anyone for 14 years, especially one who offers fluffy purr-filled hugs, and not miss them. I, of all people, should know that big love equals big grief.
Thanks for everything, Jasper the Grey. See you again.